Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): Earlier this month, I watched the 1986 movie Heartburn for the first time. I didn’t realize until later that the novel from which the film is adapted—Nora Ephron’s thinly veiled account of her cataclysmic divorce from Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein—turns 40 this year. The anniversary has inspired a spate of celebratory pieces, framed as correctives to the condescending and chauvinistic reception that greeted both book and film in the ’80s. A representative critic complained at the time that the novel was “a great misuse of talent . . . whose only point is to nail Carl Bernstein,” who cheated on Ephron when she was seven months pregnant with their second child. The movie, which bombed, was likewise called “one-sided” and castigated for its “tunnel-vision point of view of the offended party.” (The film would have been stronger, a third critic suggested, if it had explored the motivations of the fictionalized, philandering husband; perhaps, for example, he was “disgusted by [his wife’s] pregnant body.”) According to the recent biography of Mike Nichols, who was Heartburn’s director, the hostile reaction took such a toll on him that he checked himself into psychiatric care.
The commentariat was right about one thing: The film is firmly situated in its protagonist’s point of view, faithful to the texture of her experience. This is the source of its defining feature, which is not spite but a fully realized precision. Every setting is rich with sociological detail (a New York apartment hung with sophisticated theatrical posters; a Washington, DC, townhouse dusty from a perpetually unfinished renovation). Many of the strongest scenes explore the pressure on the Ephron character, Rachel, to accept her husband’s affair, an expectation that warps her social milieu. After the adultery is revealed, Rachel’s best friend makes a habit of asking whether she is “being good”—in other words, whether she is resisting raising questions to which she will not like the answers. Rachel is played by a dauntless Meryl Streep, whose performance captures the embodied vulnerability of the character’s position. Heavily pregnant, she flees to New York City, balancing her toddler and her overnight bag on either side of her enormous belly, schlepping between a group therapy session and a magazine office where she goes in search of work. It’s the specificity of her reaction to what yet another critic dismissed as the “banal” fact of adultery that makes the betrayal land with such force. If Heartburn indulges in revenge in its final moments—in the form of a key lime pie that we watch Rachel bake, knowing and yet not quite believing its slapstick fate—then at least, as the saying goes, it is sweet.
Dahlia Krutkovich (fellow): When I entered college, I boasted a spotty attendance record at a Reform Sunday school as my only experience with religious education, and as a result, I had no real sense of Jewish tradition. I was lucky, then, that one of the most exciting professors at my liberal arts college taught a course on critical interpretations of the Book of Exodus, which I took my sophomore year mainly out of interest in the instructor and only vague curiosity for the subject material. I was even luckier that the primary accompanying text for that class, Avivah Gottleib Zornberg’s commentary The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on the Book of Exodus, became my formal introduction to Jewish textual interpretation.
Zornberg, who holds a PhD in English literature from Cambridge and whose father was the chief Rabbi of Scotland, approaches Exodus and its accompanying midrash—stories written by Torah scholars that explain the Bible’s apparent omissions or errors, which a classmate of mine earnestly referred to as “Bible fanfic”—as if they are, together, structured like a psychological self. Her interpretative method, she writes, hinges on the concept of the plain language of the text—the redemption of the Exodus story as it is written—being a conscious layer of meaning, while the midrashic stories and exegeses function as “unconscious layers, encrypted traces of more complex meaning.” She writes in her introduction to the volume that, “The public, overt, triumphal narrative of redemption is therefore diffracted in the midrashic texts into multiple, contradictory, unofficial narratives which, like the unconscious, undercut, destabilize the public narrative.” If the Exodus story is the constitutive narrative of Jewish religious peoplehood, placing it alongside the centuries’ long effort to retrieve and address the trauma of the flight from Egypt offers a compelling gestalt.
The readings and interpretations that follow are some of the most humanistic and deeply kind I’ve come to encounter in modern commentaries. In her essay on the first chapter of Exodus, where the narrative opens on the Israelites’ sense of selfhood impoverished by generations of enslavement, she hones in on the midrash’s preoccupation with mirrors. Placing Lionel Trilling and (perhaps obviously) Jacques Lacan alongside Rashi, Zornberg recasts this apparent preoccupation as an incipient celebration, one that implicitly represents the first moments in which the Israelites are able to reconstitute themselves as a people ready for divine covenant.
Now that I have also had the pleasure of reading some more of the more typically dry, chauvinistic debates and commentaries, I’m relieved and grateful for having had such a wise, introspective, and pluralistic introduction to Judaism as polyphonic textual tradition, one full of accumulated knowledge and accidental assertion.
Mari Cohen (associate editor): Recently, while visiting my sister in Spain, I decided to delve into the work of one of the country’s most celebrated novelists and picked up Javier Marías’s 1992 novel A Heart so White, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Marías, who sadly died last September, begins the narrative with a literal bang: A young woman, just back from her honeymoon, goes to the bathroom during a family lunch and abruptly shoots herself, leaving no clues as to why. We soon move forward in time and learn that that young woman was the second wife of the narrator’s father and the sister of the narrator’s mother, who married her dead sister’s widower after her death. Over the course of the novel, these details and their backstory are revealed to the narrator only slowly, changing how he sees the nature of his own relationship to his wife, Luisa, and to the concept of marriage itself.
Marías tells this story in a manner that can only be called Proustian: He frequently launches—mid-plot—into page-long searching meditations on the nature of human behavior. But if Proust tends to obsess over minute details—how one observes light hitting the water; how a memory flits into the brain; how people negotiate a conversation in polite society—Marías’s digressions are broader, concerned with life’s major philosophical questions, and therefore perhaps an eerier narrative insertion. “Each step taken and each word spoken by anyone in any circumstances (hesitant or assured, sincere or false) have unimaginable repercussions that will affect someone who neither knows us nor wants to, someone who hasn’t yet been born or doesn’t know they’ll have to suffer us and become, literally, a matter of life and death,” the narrator muses while thinking about how husbands and wives come into each other’s lives by chance. And unlike Proust’s leisurely (maybe even glacially) paced narratives, Marías’s plot is taut and quick, at times unfolding like a thriller.
As the narrator slowly learns about his father’s dark past, he is led to dwell on the inherent instability and insecurity of trusting in another person. One must enter a marriage, he concludes, with the knowledge that it is possible everything will change, a third-party could unexpectedly enter the frame, a partner could one day be provoked to infidelity, or even to violence. At times, he describes this fear as one that’s gender-neutral and reciprocal—he or his wife could each one day become villain or victim.
But the specter of violence and power that hangs over the novel is decidedly male: The hushed, overheard stories that populate the narrative are those of philandering men with the very lives of trusting women in their hands. The narrator and Luisa appear as paragons of a newer, more modern Spanish generation: They are both working professional translators, they communicate well, she seems to have relatively equal say in the relationship. But still, they are beset on all sides by darker stories. In a hotel room in Cuba, they hear a man speaking to his younger, dependent mistress, promising to kill his sick wife back home. On a job overseas in New York City, the narrator stays with a friend and witnesses her attempt to navigate a dating scene of shady men demanding sex tapes. Can the narrator’s loving heterosexual marriage evade these oppressive legacies? Marías leaves us with that question.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The South Korean director Hong Sang-soo can be counted on for at least two, if not three, new films a year. Hong is not only their director; he is also their producer, screenwriter, editor, and composer. His productivity is greatly aided by his consistent use of straightforward plots, the same actors, and a simple aesthetic that takes advantage of even simpler means. But simplicity doesn’t mean lack of complexity.
His new film, Walk Up, stars Kwon Hae-hyo, who usually plays very Hong-like characters. Here he appears as a film director who takes his daughter to meet an old female friend, an interior designer. Following Hong’s signature style, the camera, placed at a medium distance from the characters, simply runs, with no movement or cuts, as the conversation runs its leisurely course. While events in each scene continue to flow unedited before the camera, in another Hong-ian turn, once the director leaves to meet a potential financier for his next film, the flow of time becomes an uncertain thing. The “chapters” of the film occur at varying intervals, with the passing of time signaled by the presence or absence of a character from a previous scene. The arcs of relationships—parental, amorous, and amical—rise and fall both within the scenes and between them; it is for us to reconstruct what occurred in the gaps. But time is not exactly linear; variations of the same events seem to recur, and the film’s end circles back to the past.
Hong’s simple setups and minimal editing make him one of the cinema’s most literary directors: The characters’ words matter. Though lacking in flash, he is also extremely cinematic. He respects the integrity of time and space immensely, and it’s precisely through the long takes that his characters have the room to reveal themselves to each other—and to us. But what is most cinematic is his ability to make undercurrents clear without hammering us over the head with them. It’s the glances, the gestures, the space between the characters that make Hong’s films so extraordinary.
Before you go!
Together with the Foundation for Middle East Piece, Jewish Currents is co-sponsoring a virtual event this coming Tuesday about how the Kohelet Policy Forum—a right-wing, US-funded Israeli think tank—is shaping law in policy in the the US and in Israel/Palestine. Read more about it and sign up here!
We also wanted to announce there will be no Thursday or Friday newsletter next week. Chag Pesach Sameach!